October 4, 2022

Facing crucial races for governor and U.S. Senate, Democratic candidates in Wisconsin are hoping their support for abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade can overcome midterm election headwinds long to favor Republicans. But there is one key group their strategies may fail to mobilize: Black voters.

An issue with strong support among white Democrats is more complicated in the black community, especially among churchgoers who hold more conservative views on abortion. The topic is so fraught that most community organizers avoid mentioning it.

“Just among the Black Baptist church, that would split us down the middle,” said David Liners, executive director of WISDOM, a statewide faith-based organizing group, when asked why his group doesn’t organize around abortion. . Karen Royster, a spokeswoman for Milwaukee-based Souls to the Polls, called abortion “taboo” in church circles, making it difficult for religious leaders to do any kind of work around it.

Other groups, such as organizing communities of black leaders, “will not proactively raise the issue” while doing voter outreach, but will discuss it if it comes up, said Angela Lang, BLOC’s executive director.

It’s an issue expected to gain even more focus after a decisive statewide vote in heavily Republican Kansas last week in favor of abortion access protections, bolstering Democratic hopes that the issue could mobilize voters elsewhere.

AP VoteCast shows that overall, black voters in the 2020 presidential election were more likely than white or Hispanic voters to say abortion should usually be legal. But among those who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, things looked different: White Democrats were more likely than black or Hispanic Democrats to say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, 88 percent to 77% to 76%.

Valerie Langston, a 64-year-old woman from Milwaukee who is black, supports Democrats and supports abortion rights. She said she is afraid to bring up the topic with friends because she is sometimes surprised to learn that some of them are anti-abortion.

“They’re still going to vote Democrat even if they don’t agree with abortion,” he said.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who won election four years ago by a little more than 1 percentage point, said he wasn’t worried about voter enthusiasm. He noted that he has vetoed nine bills from the Republican-controlled Legislature that would have restricted access to abortion. In a press conference, he expressed confidence that the issue will lead him to re-election.

“I don’t think there will be a problem,” Evers said when asked if he thought voters with different views on abortion might not be motivated to support him.

Doctors in Wisconsin stopped providing abortions after the Supreme Court ruled because of the 1849 ban that Republican lawmakers said they want to update. Anti-abortion groups said they would work to clarify the law to defend against challenges.

State Sen. La Tonya Johnson, a black Democrat who represents a majority-black district in Milwaukee, noted that many voters are focused on economic concerns. He said he hasn’t seen groups going door-to-door to talk about abortion rights, even though black women are more likely than any other group to have an abortion, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wisconsin Democratic Party engagement teams that work directly with voters of color year-round prefer to take conversations where voters lead them, spokeswoman Iris Riis said. When it comes to abortion, “It’s not the only thing we talk to voters about, but we talk about it,” he said.

Shakya Cherry-Donaldson, executive director of 1000 Women Strong, a national political organizing group focused on issues that matter to black women, favors a more direct approach. The key is to focus on the idea that “we have to have autonomy from the state,” he said — a message that resonates enough in a historically marginalized community to overcome personal and religious views on the morality of abortion.

“The context of our messages is that we cannot go back, only forward. Civil rights were won for all of us,” Cherry-Donaldson said.

But her team isn’t in Wisconsin this year, focusing their efforts on seven other states where they’ve been able to staff and fund their work.

Paru Shah, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee whose work focuses on race, ethnicity and politics, said Democrats would do well to make sure they send messages on issues like crime and voting rights instead of they focus on a specific issue such as abortion.

“There’s not a lot of voting on an issue among Democrats in general, but especially among black women who have been kind of the backbone of Democratic turnout for at least the last 10 years,” Shah said.

The GOP’s strategy and messaging to reach black voters on abortion will be the same in the midterms as it has been for decades.

“What we’re going to do is explain the excessive — I’d even say skewed — access to abortion that’s being forced on African-American women,” said Gerard Randall, chairman of the African-American Council of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

“They will surely hear from the pulpits in many of their churches a similar message of restraint on abortion access,” he said.

But Wisconsin Democrats see the issue as key to winning both the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races this fall.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that most people in the United States want Congress to pass legislation guaranteeing access to legal abortion nationwide, and that an overwhelming majority also believe states should allow abortion in specific cases, including women’s health and for rape.

The Democratic front-runner in the Wisconsin Senate race, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is black, emphasizes access to abortion as a civil right. In his latest TV ad, Barnes, who grew up in Milwaukee, and his mother talk about her decision to end a complicated pregnancy. LaJuan Barnes emphasizes that she was able to choose: “It was my decision, not some politicians’.”


Harm Venhuizen is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.

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